By Dele Olojede
I’VE told some parts of this story before, but I feel it is worth repeating and you will soon see why: a few years ago Hugh Masekela was at our din
ner table in Johannesburg, having called my wife to say he felt like some eba and egusi soup, a reminder of those days in the 70s when he spent time hanging out with Fela Kuti at the Africa Shrine in Lagos.
As the evening progressed and we all drank perhaps a little bit too enthusiastically, he told the story of his encounter with Nigerian police at a roadblock late one night on his way to a gig at the Shrine.
Of course, in the mid-70s, police routinely collected “toll” in nighttime shakedowns of hapless drivers, and they did the same to the intrepid trumpeter and composer. He paid as a matter of convenience, but on his way back to his hotel at about 4am, the same police made yet another demand of him.
Bra Hugh protested that this, in effect, amounted to double jeopardy, to which the police retorted: “Oga (Sir), that time, you dey go. This time, you dey come!”
A roar of laughter erupted around our table at this very Nigerian story. But recently, in the telling of Bra Hugh’s story, I began to see the incident as an early indication of what Nigeria was to become — a poster child for corruption and mismanagement, stuck in a hole from which it is now attempting, with some vigour, to extricate itself.
It is the seemingly little things — the brazen shakedown at the police roadblock; the easy justification of misconduct by highly placed officials; the speaker of South Africa’s parliament accompanying a convicted felon to jail as a mark of solidarity — that often foreshadow the calamities to follow.
In the heady boom times of the 70s, the Nigerian elite by and large laughed off the indicators of corruption then slowly gnawing away at society.
After all, literature flourished. The travelling theatre was in full cry. Music rang clear from the streets of Lagos and other cities. Petrodollars gushed so freely that the Nigerian government began paying the bureaucrats of cash-strapped Caribbean island nations.
But in time the country wobbled dangerously and very nearly collapsed under the weight of institutionalised graft perfected by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, later followed by the depravity and murder that characterised the years of General Sani Abacha.
A proud, some might even say arrogant, “giant of Africa” had been brought to its knees, making the country’s current attempts to revive itself an exceedingly difficult undertaking.
In South Africa’s highly charged political environment, where loyalty to a particular person leads grown men and women to find a ready excuse for despicable conduct, the lesson from Nigeria and elsewhere is simple: good countries don’t magically stay that way.
On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming — in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast or any number of countries in our corner of the Earth — that good countries often go bad when citizens fail to set high standards for the conduct of public officials.
The renewed attention to the global fight against corruption, pushed in large part by the World Bank under Paul Wolfowitz, is particularly important for Africa, where some studies suggest that about US$148 billion is lost every year, either directly to theft or indirectly through lost investment. As Kenya’s former anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, said recently at a forum in Singapore, “corruption is the most efficient engine for manufacturing poverty”.
No one needs be defensive about the focus on corruption and its devastating impact on Africa — it is not to single us out, but only to focus our minds on what ails us.
The good news is that Africans are not culturally or genetically predisposed to tolerating corruption; the evidence to the contrary is pretty much incontrovertible, in the honour system that characterised daily exchange among ordinary people up and down the continent.
Another good sign is that, in several African countries today, the fight against corruption is being waged internally by a new wave of reformers, using special law-enforcement tools such as that headed by Githongo in Kenya, and the Scorpions in South Africa.
In Nigeria, it is said that “the fear of Nuhu is the beginning of wisdom” — in reference to Nuhu Ribadu, the courageous head of Nigeria’s equivalent of the Scorpions, who daily confronts the country’s long-entrenched thieving classes.
The bad news is that our civic institutions are still weak and our politicians, by and large, remain rapacious. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, including in South Africa and perhaps Botswana and a handful of others, the government typically is the number one obstacle in the path of most Africans in their daily struggle to secure a better life for themselves and their children.
Continuous political reform is crucial to reshape our government into enablers of citizens, the makers and enforcers of the law, the guarantors of justice and equality — not our nannies or the managers of our football teams or sugar plantations or airlines. The government must focus on improving its capacity to make and enforce the law and smooth the system’s inevitable imbalances.
It is common cause that South Africa has one of the world’s most enlightened constitutions, protecting every right imaginable, and carefully balanced to insure the interests of its citizens. But even a fine constitution is a piece of paper only, if important segments of the young nation’s leadership exhibit worrying signs of poor judgement, ethical lapses and permissiveness. The polarising case of Jacob Zuma, who remains the deputy president of the ANC, is but one example.
It would seem that the bar for acceptable conduct nowadays is being continually set low. In some self-respecting societies, the mere appearance of misconduct or poor judgement is enough to force the resignation of a public official. In South Africa, the loudest voices are insisting that only a criminal conviction is bad enough to warrant the removal of a public official.
And, sometimes, not even then.
Look at the South African parliament and the case of its members convicted of fraud.
This soft bigotry of low expectations, to paraphrase a not-very-popular occupant of the White House, is the only rational explanation why Baleka Mbete, the Speaker of Parliament, chose to accompany Tony Yengeni recently to the prison gates as a mark of her solidarity.
In the increasingly anything-goes environment that some desire to foist upon us, this is deemed a minor issue. But it is nothing short of catastrophic, and not only symbolically.
The sight of the country’s chief lawmaker so flagrantly demonstrating her solidarity with a convicted felon — telling the country, in effect, that the conviction is immaterial — is a clear demonstration of the speaker’s lack of understanding of her position, or the central role in South Africa’s life represented by the country’s most important lawmaking body, which she heads.
It also shows a troubling lack of concern for either propriety or common sense. After all, Yengeni may be a nice man and a significant political player as member of the National Executive Committee of the ruling party, but he is nonetheless a convicted felon, so found after a due process by legitimate institutions of state, and duly sent to prison after having exhausted all avenues of appeal. As far as I know, no one is claiming that Yengeni received anything other than a fair trial.
The accumulation of actions such as Mbete’s are the termites that eat slowly away at a society, unnoticed, until finally the whole edifice begins to collapse.
Let us raise the bar for our public officials, not lower it. As we know from a bitter post-colonial history throughout Africa, good things don’t stay that way for long unless we toil for it.
* This article is based on a speech that Pulitzer prize-winning Dele Olojede gave at a Johannesburg seminar on corruption and the investment climate. — Sunday Times.